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Automating customer support: do humans really need human help?

According to Reputation Builder, an angry customer is two or three times more likely to leave a negative review, and 80% of customers will steer clear of a business with negative reviews.

Getting it wrong may even earn you some really bad press.

Getting it right isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible either.

So how do you keep customers happy?

They say humans yearn for human contact

One side of the argument says humans will always prefer interacting with another human. The logic behind this is that we are a social species, we live in society and are designed or programmed to interact with each other.

This argument has some scientific truth to it: in one study by Ryan W. Buell, customers who used ATMs more than human tellers had a lower level of satisfaction with their banks. Buell, who is the faculty chair of the Achieving Breakthrough Service program at Harvard Business School, found in a different experience that people calling Metlife to claim death-related insurances, receive an automated condolences message – and were a bit freaked out.

We can only imagine what that feels like. It is not a good picture.

On the other hand, isn’t this argument that was used against taking away the toll operators? Or even the iconic phone operator? Against self-service checkout at supermarkets?

Besides those two times (three, actually) I drunk dialed my ex last week, I’ve been coping without having to ask a stranger to connect me to somebody’s phone. I don’t feel lonely going past an automatic toll on the highway. I feel pretty productive and thankful about it, actually.

Specialists claim I’m not the only one. Apparently, it’s a generational thing.

I can’t believe I’m going to say this.


They say it’s a millennial thing.

Are millennials really human?

Most marketing gurus agree on this: if millennials are your audience, automation is great. Because not only are they ruining all the businesses you’ve ever heard of (true story) – they also don’t really like other humans. They’re (apparently) not good at talking to people, for example.

And they don’t like talking to anybody on the phone: they absolutely dread the possibility of having to talk to your customer support team.

This isn’t just me being sassy and sarcastic: Help Desk claims 72% of millennials literally do not want to talk to your customer service team. Which is why Gartner Predicts* claims that by 2020, only 15% of customer interactions will be handled by humans.

So Millennials seem to be gathering in Silicon Valley and preparing a world where we are all connected — but nobody has to interact with anybody. Hotel room service, Pizza cooking, waiterless restaurants, flipping burgers, mall security and even Buddhist funerals: there’s a robot for that.

There are a lot of advantages towards automation. This IBM article really explains them well. But for brevity sake, here’s what it says:

  1. AI knows everything your users are doing, your customer support team does not.
  2. AI does not need to be hired or trained or fired.
  3. AI doesn’t need to sleep and doesn’t take time off.
  4. Millennials.
  5. AI is cheap, fast and scalable.

There’s just one issue here: if we hate talking to businesses so much, and if we now have the internet, AI and chatbots ready to serve — why are phone calls to business on the rise? Why does BIA predict that by 2020, we’ll be up at 169 billion mobile calls to businesses?

As I said before, most marketing gurus agree that automation is the way to go. But quoting Mark Ritson in his genius talk What does and doesn’t matter: “your gurus don’t know fuck all about marketing.”

And if you ask me, they don’t know that much about customer support, either.

Paul Adams, VP of Product at Intercom, explains that younger audiences don’t actually expect less contact with your company: they expect it to be better. Faster, smarter and more transparent. Because technology has made contact between people so rich – those growing up with it, expect that same to be true when they deal with businesses.

Oh dear. Conundrum.

Where do we go from here?

We don’t automate everything. We start by defining a simple ground rule:

Automation is great, if – and only if – it brings you closer to your customer. Anything else is a bad move.

Some companies see customer queries as a necessary evil. Their thinking often is: the harder you make it for people to reach you, the fewer people will. So you’ll need fewer employees answering queries and the customers will end up learning by themselves.

No phone number or contact email on the website — just dozens of pages of terms and conditions and FAQs. Occasionally, a chatbot on Facebook that can’t answer any of the questions and doesn’t let you move on to a human. Twitter messages that get an automatic reply but then go unanswered for months.

For quite obvious reasons, customers hate that kind of service. Because automation here becomes the source of frustration and negativity.

There is some science to this: research shows we don’t mind using digital channels (FAQs, YouTube, how-to’s, Google) to get information. But we turn to humans to get help. Invoca, studying this, realised human conversation is still the primary way “people make complex purchases or emotional decisions.

This should not be rocket science, but we’ve all experienced this. Needing helping and having to work harder than Sherlock Holmes to discover a company’s contact. We hate it because: “Less work for employees often means more work for customers.

And if your potential customers are struggling, the last thing you want to do is have them jump through hoops. Not only will a vast majority of them drop out along the way, the few that remain will have stayed out of sheer stubbornness. A few of these will, by this point, not even want any help any more: they just want to hurl abuse at you.

Abuse that you have earned.

Automated for the people

Technology can help you provide a better service and a quicker customer support experience. This is where it excels:

  1. Solving issues before they arise: if you notice your users having a recurring difficulty in any step of the user journey, you can make sure that signs of this will trigger a reaction (be it a chat window or an invitation to check out the Help section).
  2. A helping hand in times of need: if you detect signs of struggle (like going back to the FAQs several times in a row), you can automate the sending of emails/texts letting customers know exactly who to contact if they need help. Quoting Brian Gladu: “Automation’s role is simply to start that conversation at the first sign of distress rather than waiting for the customer to do so.”
  3. Helping your customer support agents: while most people think of tech as helping the customer, you can automate what information your staff needs to know (who the customer is, what they’re trying to do, what they’re struggling with). This will result in a faster, better customer-service: making the customer happier, while also freeing your agents to answer other queries sooner.

Using automation to help your customers get better, faster, more personalised customer-support by another human when they need it has plenty of advantages. 61% of customers only look for help at the point of purchase, so it will improve conversions. It increases sales: customers with good experience purchase more. It improves customer retention or loyalty. And it brings in new customers.

The bottom line is: if your automation improves customer satisfaction, it will boost sales.
If it worsens it, you need to improve it or keep it human.

The good news is that you don’t need a team that speaks all the languages of the world. Like Skyscanner, Daniel Wellington, Pinterest and Under Armour and other high-growth companies that are scaling customer service across borders, you too can provide first-class customer service through Salesforce, Zendesk and Intercom in any language you need.

That’s literally what Unbabel is about: to build multilingual understanding between companies and customers. We help you serve customers in any language, with fast, fully integrated translations of the content powering your support operations.

Discover the next dimension of multilingual support and request a demo today.

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